Magazine article The Spectator

Four Studies in Scarlet

Magazine article The Spectator

Four Studies in Scarlet

Article excerpt

RIVERS OF BLOOD, RIVERS OF GOLD by Mark Cocker Cape, 20, pp. 416

When stout Cortes marched on Tenochtitlan in November 1519, the population of the Mexican capital was greater than that of Paris and London combined. Tenochtitlan was a city of 108 districts, built on the surface of a lake. It boasted public steambaths, a network of ceramic pipes feeding sweet-water fountains, agricultural innovations such as the irrigated floating gardens called chinampas, and a system of education far in advance of any European equivalent. At the centre of the city was a plaza holding 78 civic buildings, temples and palaces. Its residents were renowned for their expertise in botany, medicine, metallurgy and the decorative arts. Within 18 months, the Spanish newcomers had reduced this great metropolis to a platform of rubble. For conquistadores, greedy for gold and emboldened by militant Christianity, fighting Mesoamericans was a low-risk business. There may have been only 500 Spanish soldiers, but they had crossbows, arquebuses, breastplates, culverins, chainmail, falconets and solidtilted Toledo swords - all the Old World potency of sharpened steel. They had magnificent Barb-Arab horses. They had bloodthirsty mastiffs and wolfhounds. And they had the secret microbial weaponry that would prove devastating not only to the Mexicans but to so many tribal societies around the world: smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza, whooping cough, mumps.

The Spanish conquest of the Mexicans is the first of four historical portraits that make up Mark Cocker's Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold. Each of these portraits is a case study of the European treatment of tribal peoples. This treatment, Cocker argues, `could be said to represent the greatest, most persistent act of human destructiveness ever recorded'. His statistics are persuasive. More than 11 million indigenous Americans lost their lives in the 18 years following the Spanish invasion. Australia's aborigines slumped from a precolonial total of at least a million to a mere 30,000 in the 1930s. The native American population of North America fell from eight million to 800,000 by the end of the l9th century. Whenever they encountered European pioneers, tribal societies could expect one thing: rapid demographic collapse of more than 90 per cent. …

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